A lot of people say that hunting is important in order to maintain safe populations of animals. While this can appear to be true from some angles, this issue gets more and more complicated the more you chip away at it.
A case study: Wild boars in Tennessee
We recently found a wild boar skull in the forest, which is the first sign I’ve ever seen of one in our area. Wild boar have lived in our part of the Cumberland Plateau for a long time, and are pretty well controlled by the treacherous terrain and lack of concentrated food stores.
However, beginning in the 1970s, people in middle and western Tennessee really wanted to be able to hunt wild boar, so hogs were intentionally bred and brought to these areas, to populate the forests with pigs for people to go out and hunt. But what started as a ‘harmless’ sport is now a huge problem, with populations exploding in these areas of the state, where fertile low-lying farmlands provide tons of food for boars.
To help combat the boar problem, Tennessee enacted an official boar hunting season. But this actually did more harm than good, because now that hunting was officially allowed, people started stocking more and more boar, so that folks could hunt in broader areas. The hunting policy actually increased the boar population, instead of reducing it, and was eventually canceled. It’s now illegal to hunt boar in Tennessee (except in a few, very rare special circumstances), but the state works with landowners to trap and kill boar to try to control populations, and they’ve already had success in declining the number of boar by focusing on this alternative approach.
So in this case, boar were a problem caused by hunting, made worse by hunting, that has only started to abate now that hunting boar has been prohibited. This case definitely doesn’t jibe with the ‘population control’ model for justifying hunting. (More info here.)
But what about deer?
One of the main animals whose hunting season people justify by population control is deer. But if we want to accept that state of affairs, then we should also consider why the deer population is so far out of control in the first place.
We killed the wolves
Humans have decimated native populations of apex predators like the red wolf, which is a significant component of why the deer population has soared. So rather than Option A — relying on humans to go out and shoot deer due to a problem that humans caused by shooting the wolves in the first place — it seems to make more sense to give Option B a shot — reintroduce the wolves and allow the ecosystem to go back to how it was before all of our meddling.
However, while many programs are working on breeding and reintroducing red wolves back into their native habitats, these efforts are struggling, because people are shooting the reintroduced wolves, too. (Even though it’s illegal to shoot them, it’s common for someone to claim that they thought the wolf was a coyote to avoid punishment.) If people “accidentally” shooting the wolves remains a problem, stiffer penalties could be implemented, rather than relying on the current wrist-slap model. (More info here.)
We killed the mountain lions
Mountain lions were exterminated from the eastern and midwestern United States a century ago, as with other predators like the wolves. This process was hurried along by the fact that most states put bounties on the heads of cougars, paying anybody who managed to shoot one.
After the bounties were stopped, cougar populations began to bounce back, and now they’ve begun repopulating areas of the Midwest where they haven’t been seen since the early 20th century. The cougar’s return will also help re-stabilize the deer population. (More info here.)
We killed the bucks
Surprisingly, killing a bunch of bucks can actually increase deer populations. That’s because killing bucks means that the remaining population of deer trying to survive the food-scarce winter will contain a higher proportion of does, who will then be able to calve and increase the deer population more rapidly come spring.
So if the concern were really about keeping populations in check — rather than about wanting a buck with a twelve-point rack to mount on the wall as a trophy — our hunting practices would pretty much need to be the opposite of what they are today. (More info here.)
Hunting license revenues incentivize parks to maintain large deer populations
National and state parks, rather than trying to combat this supposed scourge of deer overpopulation, actually encourage deer overpopulation, because a significant portion of their revenue comes from selling hunting licenses, and hunters are happiest (and happiest to pay license fees) when they are likely to bring home deer.
Wildlife management departments specifically state in their plans and policies that keeping deer populations high is a goal, and they even clear-cut public land to create more edge habitat to encourage deer. (More info here.)
Ok, maybe there are other ways to deal with overpopulation, but some people need to hunt to feed their families
Fair enough, but let’s be careful not to over-generalize here:
People who don’t have a choice about what they eat
As discussed elsewhere on this wiki, obviously if somebody is in such a dire situation that they have no choice about what they eat, no one can hold it against them when they must rely on meat for survival.
This is certainly the case for some families, particularly in remote areas, who might starve if they aren’t able to find enough game to survive the winter.
People who have a choice about what they eat
But for the rest of us, who are fortunate enough not to be in such dire circumstances, everything we eat is a choice.
Most hunters I speak to clearly have a respect and reverence for deer, as people tend to do for wild animals whom we are lucky enough to get to know well. Many hunters are just as proud of their beautiful deer photos as they are of their deep freeze full of venison. I don’t think hunters are disrespectful to animals, or mean them harm, or that hunters are anywhere near the biggest threat to our fellow creatures (Americans kill way more cows and chickens than they do deer).
But I do hope that when people act out of a sense of tradition, that they will do it responsibly, with an eye toward whether the current form of their tradition is the best way to bond with their loved ones, or if perhaps the time has come to build new traditions together. While I understand that family traditions are an important and treasured part of how we connect with our loved ones, we also need to make sure that we are perpetuating our family traditions with a degree of awareness, and a consideration of whether these traditions are truly supporting, or might actually be weighing upon, the people we hold dear.
I still remember when my friend in seventh grade told me about going hunting with her dad. She had spent tons of hours training with and learning from him. She really loved having all that time one-on-one with him, and sharing a hobby in common. I even went spotlighting with them one night, and it was wonderful — driving around on deserted highways, chatting with her dad, occasionally stopping to shine the spotlight and catch glimpses of big, beautiful deer at the edges of fields.
But then it came time for her to go on the first hunting trip where she would have a loaded rifle. In a streak of luck, she actually had a deer in her sights on that first trip, with her dad cheering her on to take the shot. But despite her dad’s encouragement, and everything she had learned, she just couldn’t pull the trigger. They both went home disappointed and confused.
She didn’t want to kill the deer. But she also didn’t want to lose the tradition that she held with her dad. So the next time she had a deer in her sights, she pulled the trigger. It broke my heart then, and the memory still breaks my heart now, to watch her struggle with doing something that tore her up inside, but that she felt like she had to do in order to stay connected to her dad. It was the kind of choice that I’d hope no kid would ever have to make, and that I’m sure her dad would never have wanted her to have to make, had he known.
So, now what?
For the vast majority of people, hunting is a choice. And their participation in hunting may be having the opposite effect than they intend — encouraging overpopulation, rather than reducing it.
All of us can help combat deer overpopulation by supporting the return of native predators to our forests. For those who purchase hunting licenses, you may want to consider how these purchases incentivize clearing public lands and promoting deer overpopulation, and whether there might be preferable ways to enjoy the great outdoors with your family.